Young Collectors: China

M Woods Museum, 798 Art Zone, Beijing, opened by Lin Han in 2014

THERE IS A new generation of contemporary art collector in China with collections as much defined by international artists as they are by the Chinese artist whose names we are all familiar with. They are young, highly educated, wealthy and ambitious and grew up as part of the 1980s generation during a period in China marked by rapid economic expansion and personal freedoms of which their parents could only have dreamed.

Shanghai-based David Chau and Kelly Ying and Beijing-based Lin Han and Wanwan Lei are typical examples of this new breed making dramatic incursions into the art ecology landscape; Han with a recently launched private art space M Woods in that most iconic of locations, 798 Art Zone, where he will display his own collection a well as curated shows, while Chau and Ying have established an new annual art fair the third edition of which launches at the sprawling neo-classical Shanghai Exhibition Centre this month. Asian Art Newspaper spoke to both couples earlier this year in Shanghai and Beijing. Both couples had just pulled off another coup by being included in Artnet News’ Top 200 Art Collectors Worldwide for 2015. They may be young but they possess confidence and passion and are as much at home in New-York galleries as they are kicking through the dusty streets of Beijing’s Caochangdi.

In 2013, Chau and Ying along with friend and PR guru Bao Yifeng launched the contemporary art fair ART021 in Shanghai only four months after having had the initial idea over a leisurely lunch. The name is in honour of the city’s zip code.  ‘Someone said, let’s do an art fair,’ Chau said. The first edition in November 2013 suffered from hasty planning and attracted a modest 15,000 visitors, the second edition, one year later, was well bedded down and visitor’s numbers climbed to a healthy 35,000. “’We never thought that it was going to be ongoing….  it proved to be much harder than we thought. But it was also more successful than we thought,’ Chau said. The third edition of Art021 (12 to 15 November) features 75 gallery booths – Chambers Fine Art, Gagosian, Marian Goodman and Lehmann Maupin, are among the international blue-chip galleries who are happy to attend this year.

However, even the considerable and rapid development of ART021 pales into insignificance alongside the dramatic rise through the Chinese contemporary art world of Lin Han, who with no formal art education, turned himself almost overnight into a contemporary art collector when, in 2013, he bought at auction a 1997 Mask Series painting by Zeng Fanzhi for US$1 million. ‘In 2013 I did not even know who Zeng Fanzhi was and I did not know anything about art, he confessed. But he did his homework, pouring over art books, online resources and auction catalogues and the Fanzhi purchase placed him firmly on the radar of commercial galleries, who until that moment had never heard of Lin Han. The months following the purchase were marked by a frenetic art-buying spree of paintings, installations, sculpture, video and photography part financed by his investor parents who Han says, ‘were supportive’. Two hundred art works and 18 months later, he opened his own non-profit private art museum in Beijing’s 798 Art Zone. He spent US$3 million on renovating an old munitions factory and now has a 10-year lease on the space which he has named M Woods. ‘The M is the initial of my mother’s given name, Miao. Woods is a play on the English translation of the Mandarin character for Lin which means wood or forest,’ he said.

M Woods opened in October 2014 with an exhibition entitled Pale Fire: Revising Boundaries with works from the collections of six young Chinese collectors that included Chau and was as much international in scope as it was national with artists such as Tracey Emin, Kader Attia, Olafur Eliasson, Chen Fei, Xu Zhen, and of course, Han’s own Zeng Fanzhi on show. The opening was a glittering red carpet occasion with Road 797 out front shut for the evening and messages from well-wishers like former UK prime minister Tony Blair and former prime minister of Japan, Yukio Hatoyama, projected onto the building’s exterior. Asked as to how Blair was involved Han replies enigmatically, ‘It is complicated,’ without elaborating. Several high-end brands such as Ferrari and Hublot supplied sponsorship and 600 guests partied late into the night. Last month (October) M Woods celebrated its first anniversary with an exhibition of painting curated by independent curator Robin Peckham and Han’s wife, Wanwan Lei. The show, Full of Peril and Weirdness, showed 20 artists from 18 countries exploring the theme, ‘painting as a universalism’ and was accompanied by what Han described as a benefit gala and auction.

At 27 years old, Lin Han is both affable and friendly with a predilection for being photographed with celebrities and politicians and driving his red Ferrari at speed through 798. At the age of 14, he was shipped off to high school in Singapore by his parents who remained in Hong Kong and Macau. ‘I was a bad student, but I started to make money when I was 16 and made my first million Renminbi when I was 18 by selling chewing gum to fellow students in Singapore,’ he said. High school was followed by studying animation at the University of Northumbria in the UK. On returning to Beijing he opened an advertising agency specialising in luxury brands. Today, he has about 40 employees and a percentage of profits from the business go towards helping finance the non-profit M Woods along with contributions from his parents.

In contrast to Han’s self-taught achievements, Chau studied Chinese classical painting at Canada’s University of British Colombia in Vancouver, but he too made his first million dollars when relatively young by trading coins and sports memorabilia on eBay. The first art work he bought was in 2003, ‘a small abstract work on paper by Chinese pioneer of abstract artist Wu Dayo’, which he still has. He was 18 at the time. When he was 21 he started a US$32 million art investment business which he liquidated just before the 2008 global financial crisis hit. Now he owns one of China’s largest fleet-management companies leasing out ‘trucks, cars, buses, almost any form of transportation means that customers want,’ he said. Currently, 1,000 vehicles are under the company’s management. In 2009, he launched his CC Foundation – named after his parent’s initials – as a vehicle to house his collection. The foundation will also offer what he calls a range of services to the art world such as financially supporting artists, supporting galleries and art events. Controversially Chau financially supports two Shanghai galleries, Leo Xu Projects and Antenna Space, which has led to accusations from those among the art world that such financial support could lead to manipulation of the art market. Chau dismisses such concerns. He is an ‘angel investor’, he said, but does confesses to being one of the galleries best clients and cites how he bought a work by cutting-edge conceptual artist Danh Vo, Bud Lite (2012) in that year, a flattened cardboard packaging box with gilded lettering.  ‘Friends thought I was crazy with that purchase,’ he said.

Chau is the financial muscle behind Art021 which fits with his professed philosophy of wanting to be seen as an art promoter rather than just as an art collector. Chau and Ying maintain their own individual collections. Chau’s while anchored with work by Wu Dayu (1903-1988), of which he owns ‘about 150 pieces’, also includes contemporary art stars such as cutting-edge conceptual artist Xu Zhen and auteur film maker, Yang Fudong. Ying, for her part, sees her collection as more feminine than her husband’s with artists such as Zhang Enli well represented. Ying is  29 and chic beyond belief – designer clothes, expensive handbags and a penchant for diamonds – but she is more than just a ‘glamazon’. She holds a master’s degree in mass communication and is as smart as they come. ‘Four years ago I came to the contemporary art business. I learned a lot from my husband,’ she said.

Part of what she learned as a collector was how to build relationships with overseas galleries and how that could be used to her advantage. The experience has served her well in establishing ART021 that she now manages. ‘We only invite galleries who we think we really want. Because we are collectors we can talk to the galleries face to face and we know other collectors and we know the trends of collecting in China, which allows us to give advice to galleries. For example, Marion Goodman had never been to China to attend an art fair, but last year they decided to try our fair, where we were able to introduce lots of new collectors to them. Everyone was very happy,’ she said.

One-time artist muse Wanwan Lei, like Ying, is glamorous. When we met earlier this year she was enveloped in a chinchilla coat carried a Ferragamo bag and wore Ferragamo shoes – Han for his part seems insouciant to it all in dark coloured track suit pants and sweaters with a contrasting lollipop logo. Speaking perfect English, Han was, however, happy to defer to Lei. The previous evening Han had thrown a surprise party for Lei where he asked her to marry him. They had known each other for six months, she had said yes and there was a frisson of excitement in the air. Lei studied art history at China’s Central Art Academy and art administration at New York’s Columbia University and her presence at M Woods adds a scholarly depth to the museum’s curatorial profile something Han could not have achieved without her. She serves as a calming antidote to Han’s boundless passion for art.

And passion remains a key ingredient in the lives of all four collectors as they continue to build their business empires and collections. Chau reiterates his views. ‘I do not see myself as a collector, I see myself as an art promoter, as someone who can support the art ecosystem in China.  This is what I want to do. People have criticised me, they say, you are a collector and yet you are helping out commercial galleries, art fairs – you are not supposed to do that. However, my attitude is whatever needs me I will do it, so I do not care what people say, ‘ Chau explained.

Some might call this philanthropy, while others are obviously less generous. As for the larger question of art’s role in China Han has a clear answer. ‘In the last 20 years everybody got money and everything moved very fast.  We are the 1980s generation ready to do something for the future … art will be more and more important as culture become more important.  I believe that culture will eventually lead the economy,’  Han concluded.

BY MICHAEL YOUNG